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How to Do Well in the HSC Sciences
Doing well in HSC science subjects requires a slightly different approach than HSC maths or English subjects. HSC sciences such as Chemistry, Physics and Biology are the focus of the curriculum. Detailed knowledge and familiarization with the syllabus are very important.
TIP 1: Know the syllabus
Knowing the syllabus is very important. Firstly, all HSC science exams can only test you on the content in the syllabus. Most of the time, the questions in the HSC exam are just syllabus points that have been reworded.
For example, the actual HSC Chemistry syllabus point is “Describe hydrogen bonding between molecules”. A corresponding exam question might ask something simple like “Describe the hydrogen bonding between water molecules.” Alternatively, exam questions can be a little more difficult, such as: “Identify a compound that has strong hydrogen bonding and describe how hydrogen bonding affects its melting and boiling points.” But in both cases, the question can be reduced to simply describing your knowledge of how hydrogen bonds work between molecules and how this phenomenon affects some of the chemical’s physical properties.
If you have a great understanding of the syllabus and have covered every single point in detail, you will know enough to get Band 6. We emphasize the fact that only what is in the syllabus can be tested in the exams. If you never understand a concept because it was poorly explained to you at school, or if the concept is very difficult, ask your teacher if it is in the syllabus. If not, understand that this is not being studied, so don’t worry too much about not fully understanding the concept. However, if the concept is in the syllabus or is required by a point-by-point as background information, you should know it well.
TIP 2: Know what is important for practicals/exams
The HSC Sciences syllabus contains many items that require students to ‘conduct primary research’ or ‘collect data from primary research’. These points are responsible for the normal tests you do in school. It is very important that you do not ignore the information that is presented to you in one of the test lessons at school. Many students think of tests as fun (and they are), but they ignore the fact that each test covers at least one point in the syllabus, sometimes several at the same time.
Things you need to know about ALL experiments are:
- The scientific principle being tested/used (for example, an experiment to demonstrate Newton’s second law requires first understanding the formula F=ma and using it in calculations)
- Correct procedure. A very important example is titration, where washing procedures are sometimes tested in exam questions (e.g. “Explain what the primary standard is” or “Explain the need to rinse the pipette before use with the solution it must contain.”)
- Safety issues / appropriate precautions. For example, never burn lead compounds when flame testing. Or when burning magnesium, use tongs and don’t look at the flame. (Other examples include: know which metals/chemicals are toxic, when to use safety glasses and gloves, how to deal with fires/flames, etc.)
- Sources of error: This last one is important because many HSC exam questions may ask you to talk about sources of error in experiments you should have done at school. For example, “Identify three sources of error in this experiment and suggest ways to minimize their effect on your results.”
The important thing to remember here is to pay attention during test sessions at school and not ignore these bullet points while studying and revising.
TIP 3. Understand the concepts
We don’t recommend trying to memorize too many things. HSC science cannot be memorized and all top students who achieve HSC grades >95 really understand the concepts of their subject.
Understanding the concept is very important for success in HSC Science. Before the exam, there is no way you can predict what specific questions you will be asked. All you know is that everything tested is in the syllabus, but the specific wording of your questions may bother you.
If you rely on memorizing course content, you are inflexible. A question with a slightly unusual approach or worded in an unfamiliar way will catch you off guard and you risk losing easy marks. However, if you truly understand the concepts involved, you can always derive the answer on the spot, even if the question is phrased in an unfamiliar way or requires unusual thinking. This way, you will be a flexible student and regardless of how the exam is set, you will get a high grade that reflects your good ability.
There are certain situations where memorization is appropriate. In general, they are:
- Memorizing topics for long essay type questions. For example, in HSC Physics it is a good idea to make a list of points about the pros and cons of AC and DC. A common exam question might be “Discuss” or “Compare and evaluate” or “Evaluate the societal impact of the development of alternating current electricity.” To solve these questions, it’s a good idea to try to memorize a short list of words or phrases that resemble a general topic that can be argued in favor of both sides (AC vs DC).
- Some facts do not have a pattern, so it is useful to memorize them. HSC Chemistry is a good example of this. Good students memorize all lithium ions, their molecular formulas and valencies as they gain experience in the course. Another example would be memorizing certain sets of definitional knowledge, such as Newton’s laws.
- Memorize simple equations. This is very important and will save you time and grief during the exam. Although you will be given a formula sheet for HSC Science, it is a good idea to memorize simple equations or formulas as flicking towards the back of the exam paper wastes precious seconds every time. Even when memorizing simple equations, you are less likely to make calculation errors than blindly copying formulas from a data sheet each time.
But always try to understand the concept behind it as it will benefit you in the long run.
4. ADVICE. Make good use of available resources
What we mean by this is, for example:
- If you have any questions, ask your teacher!
- If you don’t fully and completely understand a concept, ask your teacher until you do!
- Team up with other bright students who want to do well in the HSC. Share notes with them.
Most teachers answer all the questions that students ask because they are happy to know that their students are so committed to doing well. After all, the satisfaction of seeing their students succeed is one of the main reasons teachers choose the profession! However, not all students have access to teachers who are ready and happy to answer lots of questions or explain concepts at length. In this case, you may have other resources. For example, find a good instructor and ask the teachers there!
Another thing to remember is to summarize your syllabus points. Synthesize and collect all your knowledge, put it together and put it on paper. It is recommended that you submit your notes to your class teacher (or after-school tutor) for review to ensure that your knowledge of the course is comprehensive. Getting this far may seem daunting, but remember that high grades can only come with hard work.
Our top three tips for succeeding in HSC Science are:
- Know the syllabus like the back of your hand!
- Know what to look for when it comes to test scoring
- Make sure you understand the concepts related to your topic. Don’t rely on memorization unless it’s the only way
Following this general advice will improve the approach of most students to HSC Science as these are the main failings of most HSC Science students today.
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